On a recent night on the dance floor at Elsewhere Bar in Brooklyn, the air was heavy with sweat, joy and sorrow. I’d seen someone bury their face in their hands, shoulders shaking with silent sobs, and then, in what felt like seconds later, drop to the floor, behind bouncing, hands blurry with the tight micro-choreography of vogue.
In moments like this I think about the last line of the artist Sable Elyse Smith’s 2016 essay titled “Ecstatic Resilience.” It reads: “by taking a breath … by breathing … the club is a sanctuary for queer liberation.”
For many, in big cities and beyond, the club can exist as a rare space where we feel free from the responsibility of representation and the pressures of monetization. In 2019, the optics of gay liberation are paradoxical. Rainbow logos are everywhere: store windows, shopping bags, TV commercials, ride share applications, social media ads and Instagram hashtags.
The onslaught is relentless. Queerness has never been more visible, more trending and more in demand and yet, our lives and our livelihood feel extremely tenuous and fragile. Many queer communities are still struggling for basic rights and recognition.
The party itself is a breath, an essential timeout from the hyper-vigilance and chaos of being black and brown queer bodies who exist beyond the scope of majoritarian and normative expectations. Gay clubs and safe spaces have always offered a place for experiences and road-testing new looks, identity expressions, desires and orientations. And even though landmark and legacy gay bars and clubs are slowly disappearing all over America, the club lives on, in parties, on apps, and through spontaneous encounters.
Right now, there is an abundance of gay parties in New York City — Papi Juice, Yalla, Hot Rabbit, THEMbot, Bubble T, Homotown, Teaze, Femmepremacy, Truuu Party, Hot ’N Spicy and Set it Off — serving every intersection and identity expression. A friend calls it “getting a rinse.” Rinsing off the tragedy and drenching ourselves in a new, invigorating sensation or perspective.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a landmark moment in the gay civil rights movement, and that lends a heightened lens on all that has changed for L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.+. in this country and all that has not.
On June 10, after an exuberant weekend of Pride parties and celebrations across the boroughs, people gathered in the rain to demonstrate for an investigation into the death of Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza, a 27-year-old woman found dead in her cell on Rikers Island earlier this month. She belonged to one of the most iconic communities in the black drag ball scene, the House of Xtravaganza. And tragically, heartbreakingly, her death was not singular. According to Human Rights Campaign, a leading L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. advocacy group, three black trans women have been killed in the United States, this month alone.
In “We Are Everywhere: Protest Power and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation,” a new book of gay history, the authors Matthew Reimer and Leighton Brown write that in New York, at least, L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.+. bars have always functioned as “the central institution of queer life, serving as a social center and a crucible for politics” as far back as they can tell.
After the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, that legacy was cemented, as gay bars, social clubs and nightclubs emerged where queer people led gay renaissances around the boroughs.
But those newly forming spaces were, and many of the ones that still exist are, dominated by white-bodied cisgender men and cater to their experiences and comfort levels. Discriminatory dress codes and practices of so-called double carding — asking for two forms of identification — were rampant, as was charging people of color more for entry than white-bodied people in an effort to discourage them.
And if they made it inside, intimidation, harassment and threat of police raids loomed large. Bartenders could refuse service to gay customers, and anyone inside accused of “disorderly” or “immoral” conduct, like same-gender flirting, kissing or dancing, could be arrested. It was illegal for two men to dance together in New York until 1971.
The first season of “Pose,” a show about the ballroom scene — and so much more — set in the late 1980s, included a window into this experience in a heartbreaking scene in which Blanca, played exquisitely by MJ Rodriguez, endures transmisogynistic harassment for trying to integrate a downtown gay bar. That scene was filmed at Julius’, a real bar in New York and one of the older sites of gay activism and patronage in the city.
[Take a walk through gay New York and meet the L.G.B.T.Q. icons and activists who shaped it.]
The contemporary black ballroom scene has its origins in white exclusion. In Out Magazine, Mikelle Street traced it back to a camp beauty pageant in 1967, when Crystal Labeija, one of the scene’s most popular drag queens, placed third runner-up.
As she left the stage, she delivered a searing speech about racial discrimination in ballroom scene, an address so iconic that it has reverberated through time, and was recently referred to on an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” After that, Ms. Labeija and a friend began throwing black-only balls, creating an inheritance that is treasured and celebrated to this day.
Gerard H. Gaskin, a Trinidadian photographer who documented the contemporary ballroom scene, captured intimate images of gay gatherings that breathe and perspire on the page.
In an interview with AfroPunk, Mr. Gaskin said these gatherings are not limited to New York. “This happens at night in small halls in cities all over the country,” he said. “These photographs show us different views of these spaces as they are reflected in the eyes of house and ball members who perform what they wish these cities could be.”
At the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, a hand-drawn map shows where black lesbians met in Harlem, defunct places with promising names like Zambezie Bar, the Zodiac Club, Mahogany and Tubby’s.
Several names are on the map, too, suggesting homes were nexuses for gatherings. Shawn Smith-Cruz, an archivist at Lesbian Herstory Archives, told me that in those days “the very act of attending and being in the space was the penultimate goal.”
The club is not bound to a specific place. It can’t be. Time, gentrification and predatory business practices have kept the club on the move, and not bound to a single venue or neighborhood. Spaces are queered by the bodies that congregate there and the politics that they bring en masse.
The Bklyn Boihood collective hosts events and gatherings that center queer and trans people of color. Despite the popularity and demand for Boihood parties, the ability to erect the club is extremely vulnerable and tenuous: organizers burn out, or a neighborhood gentrifies and spaces are forced to close. The parties that existed 10, five, even a few months ago in New York aren’t happening anymore, according to Ryann Holmes, one of Boihood’s founders.
That is what happened a few years ago with the Starlite Lounge in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the oldest black-owned gay bar in New York.
Mx. Holmes is also one of the organizers of a monthly summer party called Joy, which they started three years ago with a good friend, Maria Garcia, a D.J. who goes by Rimarkable, as both a memorial and a wake for the people killed at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
The event was intended to be a one-off. The organizers named the gathering Joy for what they hoped it would provide for people in mourning. They estimated 50 or so people would come. More than 200 showed up.
“People had gone through so much. The energy was through the roof,” Rimarkable recalled. She also felt it was important to hold daytime events, in a nod to the afternoon parties, called tea dances, that have been a staple of gay culture for several decades. And the parties are often intergenerational, with queer youth and elders alike sharing space.
But Joy faces the same threat as its forebears, as the number of black-owned spaces dwindles, and the venues that remain aren’t always eager to host large gatherings of black people on a regular basis. Mx. Holmes is working toward buying a venue to liberate themselves from that problem.
The club can also be a site for shaping cultural change within communities. “We can’t just say this is a safe space,” Mx. Holmes said. “We have to actually make it safe for people to come and enjoy themselves.”
That includes educating security staff on how to interact with nonbinary bodies and what to do when a person’s name may not match what is on government-issued identification. The parties center nonwhite bodies, as the desire for proximity to queerness and blackness has intensified over the last few years, and they both honor the need and desire to protect the sanctity of spaces. Some party organizers offer cab fare to partygoers who may feel safer avoiding public transportation late at night.
The club also functions as a living archive, from the music that is played to the people who show up to celebrate each other and be celebrated. I saw a recent set by Rimarkable that only included house tracks and classic disco songs — an ode to the black origins of house music, born on the South Side of Chicago, and techno, with roots in Detroit. “This music is also our legacy,” Rimarkable said.
The gay bars that existed when I was a younger adult in New York didn’t feel welcoming to me, and when I went, I was often one of few people of color, and never felt desire or desired. Angela Dimayuga, a chef and rising star on the New York food scene, felt the same way.
“I’ve been here 13 years, and I’ve never gone to gay bars,” Ms. Dimayuga said. “They all felt divey and not for me.”
When Ms. Dimayuga was hired by the Standard Group as its creative director of food and culture in May, she took over the event coordination and hired Candice Saint Williams to work alongside her as the programming and night life director.
The two of them wanted to create a feeling for a space that they felt was lacking in downtown Manhattan, and they transformed the bar in the bottom of the East Village Standard into a gay bar named No Bar.
Most spaces accommodate queer people but aren’t designated that way. They are made queer by the bodies that congregate within them, en masse. With No Bar, Ms. Dimayuga was determined to put her queer community first.
The tension between activism and capitalism has inspired the creation of a Queer March, by a coalition determined to reclaim pride in the spirit of Stonewall with a march that exists beyond the scope of commercial floats and heavy police presence that define the traditional NYC Pride March.
“With more of a presence in society comes more of a need to exert our sociopolitical power,” Raquel Willis, the executive editor of Out magazine, wrote in a recent article. No matter what commercial trends tell us, being out and open is still a privilege and a luxury. And we will always need safe spaces.